Where’s the Stake? U.S. Interests in the South China Sea, by Jonathan G. Odom

Wednesday, 15 February 2012 02:19 quanghung299


Much of the legal discussion about the ongoing situation in the South China Sea focuses upon the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[1], a convention that was concluded in 1982.  During that early 1980's timeframe, there was an iconic television commercial[2] in the United States promoting the fast-food chain of restaurants known as Wendy’s.  The commercial showed three little old ladies standing at a cash register of a fictional restaurant that was competing with Wendy’s.  Behind the ladies was a sign on the wall that read, "Home of the Big Bun."  On the countertop was a large hamburger bun with an extremely small meat patty.  Each of the old ladies stared intensely at the bun.  Two of the ladies were admiring the bun.  The middle lady said, "It certainly is a big bun. It's a very big bun. It's a big fluffy bun. It's a very big fluffy bun."  The lady on the right, however, was wholly unimpressed with the large bun.  Over and over, she kept yelling "Where's the beef?" across the counter to anyone who might listen. At the conclusion of the television commercial, as the screen faded to black, the viewer could hear the third lady doubtfully telling her colleagues, "I don't think there is anybody back there."


This 1980’s commercial reminds this author of an aspect of the ongoing South China Sea situation.  In recent years, international observers have highlighted the interplay between the United States and China about the South China Sea situation, including statements made by senior diplomats from the two nations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, during July of 2010.  At that meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made remarks about U.S. policy on the South China Sea situation.[3]  Days thereafter, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) released a statement about the matter, alleging that Secretary Clinton had "played up" the issue and that her remarks "were designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern."[4]The MOFA statement then recounted how China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi "made an intervention" at the ARF meeting by "raising a row of questions." 

Foreign Minister Yang’s "row of questions" at the 2010 ARF meeting was as if the old lady on the Wendy's television commercial had yelled, "Hey, United States, where's the stake?"   Apparently, China doubts either that the United States has interests in the South China Sea, that those U.S. interests are at risk, or all of the above.  Thus, instead of talking more about hamburgers, this paper will talk about stakes.  These are not beef steaks, but rather the stakes or interests that a nation holds in a given situation.  More specifically, this paper will considerthe questions:  Does the United States, in fact, have interests in the South China Sea.  If so, what exactly are those U.S. interests and what are theelements or components of those interests?  And, given the current circumstances of the South China Sea situation, are those U.S. interests truly at risk?

The discussion in this paper will be divided into two parts.  First, it will identify the interests that the United States holds in the South China Sea.  Second, it will provide some personal insights and opinions of the author about two of those interests.  This second part will also highlight and examine actions and inactions by other nations in the region that, in the author’s opinion, might be putting those U.S. interests at risk.


I.  Identifying U.S. National Interests

 Over the past two years, senior U.S. officials have made public remarks that specified the U.S. interests in the South China Sea.  For example, U.S. President Barack Obama identified those U.S. interests during a meeting with ASEAN leaders in September 2010[5] and during a press conference with China President Hu Jintao in January 2011.[6]  Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has identified those interests at the ASEAN Regional Forum, first during the July 2010 meeting[7] and then during the July 2011 meeting.[8]  Additionally, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified them at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2010.[9]More recently, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discussed the U.S. interests at the ASEAN-Defense Ministers Plus meeting in Bali, Indonesia in October 2011.[10]  Based upon these public statements by U.S. senior officials at international meetings and forums with their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region, the interests asserted by the United States in the South China Sea can be distilled to four interests:  (1) Respect for international law, (2) Freedom of navigation, (3) Security and stability in the region, and (4) Unimpeded commerce and economic development.

 What is clear is that these senior U.S. officials have consistently identified these national interests.  To a certain extent, however, what they have not explained, in substantial detail, is the nature of these interests.  Therefore, this paper will share some personal insights and opinions of the author about these interests.  Again, it should be emphasized that these insights are the author’s personal views provided in the author’s personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any of its components.  Due to space limitations, this paper will focus upon two of these four interests – specifically, respect for international law and freedom of navigation.



Read full text of this paper here

[1]United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), December 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397.

[2] The "Where's the Beef?" commercial can be viewed on the internet at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug75diEyiA0.

[3] U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Remarks at Press Availability,” Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 1010.

[4]People’s Republic of China (PRC) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry Yang Jiechi Refutes Fallacies on the South China Sea Issue,” July 26, 2010.

[5]Joint Statement of the 2nd United States-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, Office of the Press Secretary, White House, Washington, DC, September 24, 2010.

[6]Press Conference with U.S. President Obama and PRC President Hu, White House, Washington, DC, January 19, 2011.

[7] U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Remarks at Press Availability,” Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 1010.

[8] U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Statement on South China Sea,” Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 2011.

[9] U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Remarks by Secretary Gates at the Shangri-La Dialogue, International Institute for Strategic Studies,” Singapore, June 4, 2010.

[10]U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta,“Statement to ASEAN Defense Ministers,” Bali, Indonesia, October 23, 2011.

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